The Legend of the Baobab Tree

I never thought I would base one of my leadership models on a tree, but then again many business do.

Our safari van
Our safari van

When I was a young, gangly boy at the odd age of fifteen, my father and I went on a photo safari to Kenya, Africa. We loaded this eight passenger van. It had a cut-out roof that could raise up to allow you to stand and take pictures of the wildlife. The van bumpily traveled from lodge to lodge or campsite to campsite giving us the best pictures of the animals. There were also these strange trees that had massive round trunks that shot to the sky and little bitty branches sticking out of the top. The odd look of these trees fascinated me.

On our fourth day in the wilds of Africa. Our little white safari van stopped at a Maasai village. The village was a small group of huts made mostly wooden walls comprised of inch diameter trees roped together to block out the wind. The roof is made of thatched grass. It was laid in an intricate pattern to keep out the sun and what little rain they received in a year. The people came out to greet us in beautiful red robes, called shuka, draped over their shoulders. Necklaces of beads and leather bands hung from their necks and swung with the rhythm of their movement. Dark faces surrounded us broken by the largest and most white smiles I had ever seen. You could tell straight off that these were happy people despite what we might think was a meager lifestyle.

The Maasai people took turns showing us various things that they were proud of around their village. One showed us a statue of a lion that he was carving from some sort of stone or perhaps hard wood. Another showed us some clay pots that she had been making. After the tour, we went to the center of the village. Here they played us music and invited us to dance with them. Soon a larger man in more decorated red clothes came to the center and welcomed us in Swahili. Our van driver played interpreter for us. This man was the chief of the tribe. He had a special surprise for us.

Me dancing with the lovely people of the Maasai in the summer of 1987

We followed him over to an open hut where he presented my father and I with a drinking gourd. He explained that this was their mead. It is created from fermented honey. You were to pour a little on the ground to honor the dead, take a little in your mouth and blow it out to give it to the spirits, and finally take a drink yourself. Afterwards, he invited us to sit and talk.

During our discussion, I questioned him about those strange trees; I pointed to the one at the edge of the village for reference. I asked what it was and why did it look so funny. To this he asked if I had ever heard the legend of the baobab tree. At my quizzical look, he began the story for us.

Baobab Tree
Baobab Tree

“Many years ago, before my people walked this land, the mighty baobab tree was the most beautiful sight in the world. The gods had made it big and strong. They are very proud of their creation. They adorned it with flowers of all colors hanging in the leaves and branches.

The baobab knew it was the gods’ favorite and it grew prideful. It would tell the other trees near it that it was the most beautiful and needed all the sunlight it could gather. It grew tall and stretched its branches wide to catch the light; at the same time leaving the smaller trees that now lived under it with no light, so the smaller trees tried to spread their roots to find water. However, the baobab blocked the sun. It claimed it was the gods’ favorite and it needed all the water to remain beautiful.

A leopard came to the baobab and tried to climb it for shelter from the hot mid-day sun. They baobab shook it off and scolded the leopard for leaving claw marks in its gorgeous bark. “A lowly creature such as you,” the tree chided, “should not be seen in the branches of a mighty tree such as myself.”

The baobab was a favorite of the gods, that part was true. However, they grew tired of the tree’s vanity and unwillingness to play its part with the rest of their creations. They reached down from the sky and plucked the mighty tree from where it was rooted. For penance, they turned it over and replanted it with all its beautiful branches and flowers deep in the ground to never be seen again, so the only part remaining was the huge trunk and the ugly gnarled roots shooting skyward.”

Org Chart

I was in awe of such a story and through the years, it has stuck with me. Once I became a facilitator for leadership soft skills training, the legend of the baobab returned to forefront of one of my classes. On the screen, I have a slide with a typical organizational chart. However, I have it upside-down from the way one would normally see it. A normal chart has the CEO on top, VPs on the level below him, branched out to directors below them and so forth until the hourly employees were at the very bottom.

In mine, the CEO is at the bottom and the employees are at the top. I ask the class if they have seen a chart like this before, which everyone nods. I then ask what are their thoughts on these org charts. Inevitably, someone will let me know that my chart is wrong because it is upside-down. At this I smile and retell the legend of the baobab, even bringing an image on the screen beside the org chart for comparison.

As leaders, we should not be the top of a beautiful org chart tree with the flower of our success cascading down to those that serve us; blocking the light from the souls underneath our outstretched branches. Quite the opposite really! We should be the proud roots holding up this magnificent organization to the sun, so they can bask in the sunlight of everyone’s triumph.

You should be funneling the nourishing water up through the trunk of upper management into the branches of middle management and out to the employees who make up the leaves of your business. Those resources should include money, time, direction, alignment, empowerment, and heartfelt one on one appreciation. It is your employees out in the field, on the showroom, on the phones, selling your product, and in the ditches, that are doing the work for your business. Give them everything they need to be successful and your company will rise.

Southwest Plane
Southwest Plane

Let us look at Southwest Airlines, NYSE symbol is LUV. They are profitable. They have been for the last 43 years in what could be considered apocalyptic times for the airline industry. When others were falling out of the not so friendly skies all tighter, Southwest remain strong. In fact, since 1989 when Southwest became a major airline in reaching a million dollars in revenue, they are the only major airline of the time that has not filed for bankruptcy or gone out of business! How? What is their secret that no one else seems to have?

Colleen Barrett, president emeritus, said it best many years ago:

We are in the customer service industry. We just happen to fly airplanes.

Southwest builds it’s culture on taking care of the customer. Their number one customer is their employees. PERIOD. Then the people who pay for tickets are a close second. They back this up as well. In orientation on your first day wearing a Southwest badge, your instructors tell you that you have the power to refund a customer’s money and tell them to go fly another airline if they are being abusive to you as an employee of SWA. The scary part is…they mean it!

I watched an employee at the gate. She was yelled at, cussed at, and insulted in every way possible. She held a calm demeanor and tried to help the customer. After a good eight to ten minutes of verbal abuse, she hit a few buttons on her touchscreen monitor. It opened the cash drawer. She counted out the exact amount of the gentleman’s (term used loosely after the language I observed) money and explain to him that she did not feel he wanted to fly on Southwest that day and he was welcome to choose another airline for his travels. There was never any reprimand to this agent. Quite the contrary, because she was high-fived all the way back to the break room where she went to cry and calm down after the frustrating experience.

WOW! Empowerment! That is why Southwest is successful and so many other companies across the world that understand it. You must serve your employees and make it known that they are important. Then back that up with action and not just words. They will bend over backwards to make sure you are successful.

Sam Walton
Sam Walton

“If you want your people in the stores to take care of the customers, then you have to take care of the people in the stores! “

Sam Walton of Walmart knew it, and Facebook and Google have figured it out. In-and-Out burger serves it up to their employees and even LinkedIn is praised for how they treat their employees. Do a simple internet search of the best companies to work for. You will find a list of the companies that have mastered turning their org charts upside down.

Yes, you have worked hard to get to the top, but that is not what is important. Your employees deserve a chance and as their leader, it is your job to give it to them.

Don’t be a baobab, because if you do, one day you may find your world turned upside down.


Below you will find our Servant Leadership Worksheet. Please enjoy!

There is a famous quote that states:

We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.

Which tells us that each of us have a perspective and that context filter skews the way we see the things around us. When people hear “servant leadership,” their filters kick in and they can view it in a wide range of lights. What are your thoughts on servant leadership? Take a moment and jot down what comes to mind where you hear someone say servant leadership.

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

Servant Leaders: The Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi
Servant Leaders: The Dalai Lama, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi

Consider the servant leaders from history. That list could include some of the most powerful leaders mankind has ever known: Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Abraham Lincoln, and the list goes on. Some people feel that servant leadership means that you allow your employees to walk over you. Consider the list above. Are these people weak? I am pretty sure I could have taken Mother Teresa in a fight, but that is not all that makes up “strength” as you know. None of these great leaders use force or domination. They use the passion that they have for the people around them. That is contagious and can set fire to the hearts of your employees.

For my life, my grandfather on my mother’s side comes to mind when I think of servant leadership. He was a man that walked the walk and showed me how I should be as a man. Still 30+ years after his death, I hold those values that I saw in him. Pause for a moment and create your own list of leaders you have worked for or had the pleasure to be around. Chose people from your life, not from history as the example from above. Use the space below for your list.

  1. ____________________________________________________
  2. ____________________________________________________
  3. ____________________________________________________

 

What behaviors do these people have that you admired and what results did those behaviors achieve?

Behavior Result
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

How can you change your behaviors to mirror those of your role models? What are three specific actions that you can take to do so?

  1. ____________________________________________________
  2. ____________________________________________________
  3. ____________________________________________________

 

When you make these changes in your life, what will the people around you see?

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

And finally, how will it affect your life and those around you?

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

_____________________________________________________________________________________

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.